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Sunday, March 20, 2011


The Bronze Bonze

An enthralling tale of temptation and its payoff


Yoshiyuki Yoneda had a problem. As chief priest of a temple in Kyoto, he ministered to the spiritual and ritual needs of his local community. But like many other clerics in Japan's ancient capital, he also wanted to attract fee-paying tourists to his temple.

News photo
Johnny Wales

As far as his strictly religious duties were concerned, Yoneda was a model priest, although hardly a paragon of ascetic virtue — his love of food and drink showed in his roly-poly frame, chubby cheeks and plural chins. But his faith in the Buddha's teachings had never wavered. He felt it was important to spread the Enlightened One's word in today's materialistic society, and not merely officiate at funerals and collect offerings.

When it came to pulling in the punters, though, Yoneda was an abject failure. He had a very un-Buddhist feeling of envy when he passed the city's big-name temples and shrines and saw the fleets of buses disgorging masses of tourists who dutifully lined up at the ticket gates.

Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji and Dokakuji — the temples of the Golden, Silver and Copper Pavilions, respectively — were special targets of Yoneda's envy. And for good reason. The temple where he served as chief priest — in fact, the only priest — was Seidokakuji: the Temple of the Bronze Pavilion. As such, it was very much an also-ran in the Kyoto temple stakes.

Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji boasted buildings built along classical Japanese lines in expansive, well-kept grounds, while Dokakuji (more correctly known as Daiunin) had a spiffy pagoda with a spectacular spire jutting from its roof.

Seidokakuji, however, was just another run-of-the-mill single-story wooden temple, whose roof featured some bronze sheeting that was badly corroded and in need of repair. The temple grounds consisted of a few bits of scraggly shrubbery that had once borne the appellation of "garden," and a dank, poorly maintained graveyard that was a favorite haunt of the neighborhood's stray cats.

Seidokakuji had been founded in the late 16th century by a nobleman who intended to use it as a private retreat after retiring from court life. But soon after the temple was completed, the peer in question had permanently retired to the (presumably) celestial realm, and Seidokakuji fell into neglect and obscurity until it was little more than a footnote in the grand saga of Kyoto.

Yoneda had inherited the position of chief priest at Seidokakuji from his father, who in turn had inherited it from his father, and so on as far back as the temple records showed. In his darker moods, Yoneda likened his hereditary office to a family curse.

He found himself sharing these thoughts late one January evening with his old schoolmate Mitsuaki Matsumoto after quaffing more than his usual intake of sake.

"It's just not fair, Matsumoto," complained Yoneda. "Why shouldn't Seidokakuji be up there with Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji and Dokakuji?"

"Erm, have some more sake, Yoneda-sensei," Matsumoto replied diplomatically. "I feel your pain, but to be honest, Seidokakuji is a bit less . . . visually appealing, shall we say, than the temples you mention."

"But look at Ginkakuji — it doesn't have any silver on it at all. Talk about false advertising!"

"Yes, but you have to admit that it's a beautiful building, and the grounds are exquisitely landscaped," Matsumoto pointed out. "Forgive me for saying so, old friend, but Seidokakuji is a hole in the wall in comparison. The fact that you can see Mrs. Watanabe's washing from the temple gate is hardly something to write home about. And being at the end of a dead-end street in a part of the city that's nowhere near any of the big tourist sites doesn't help either."

"Well, I'm at my wits' end," moaned Yoneda. "I don't have any money to repair the blasted roof, and I'm losing more and more funeral business because the place looks so ratty. It's a vicious circle."

"What you need is a marketing plan," said Matsumoto, his eyes lighting up with nihonshu-fueled enthusiasm. "With the right PR strategy, we can make the fee-paying public aware that Seidokakuji, modest though it may be, is no less deserving of recognition than temples like Kinkakuji."

"Thank you for your optimism, no matter how unfounded it may be," replied Yoneda wearily. "Just how do you propose to go about that?"

"By turning adversity into advantage. Look at it this way — there's really nothing to see here, right?"

"That's putting it rather bluntly, but I'd be a liar if I said that wasn't true," admitted Yoneda.

"Well, I have a brilliant idea, if I say so myself. Just leave everything to me, and in no time you'll be turning away the hordes who come to Seidokakuji."

"Matsumoto, you've always been a true friend and have never steered me wrong — I remember how you kindly sorted out that silly business with the headstone company for me — so please go ahead and do what you think best," said a by-now sloshed Yoneda.

Matsumoto was as good as his word. With the help of a well-connected friend who worked at a major ad agency, he crafted a guerrilla marketing strategy centered on social media. The campaign leveraged Yoneda's nondescript temple into a symbol for the frugal restraint appropriate during the current period of economic stagnation, as opposed to the vulgar ostentation of places like Kinkakuji (although this was never explicitly stated, of course).

"Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji are so . . . 'bubbly,' " explained Matsumoto, referring to Japan's late-'80s era of excess, as he outlined his plans to Yoneda during one of the bibulous strategy sessions they held through February and March. "People are rediscovering the traditional virtues of simplicity and honest poverty — I mean, look at how "Hojoki" ("The Ten Foot Square Hut") by Kamo no Chomei has recently become a best-seller even though it was written almost 800 years ago."

But Matsumoto's real stroke of genius was to spin a tale about the mysterious bronze bowl of the Temple of the Bronze Pavilion, a vessel rumored to have been used by the Buddha himself to wash his feet. By chanting the right mantra — available for a modest fee at the temple itself, or via the Seidokakuji website — while staring deep into the depths of the sacred bowl or its virtual online version, one could divine the true state of one's soul, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of the future.

Matsumoto's campaign went viral, as the unpleasant neologism puts it. By the height of the spring school-excursion season, on any given day the line of people waiting to pay their ¥300 admission fee to Seidokakuji extended the length of the narrow dead-end street leading to the temple, and out onto the main drag beyond.

The number of international visitors also grew as the foreign media latched onto the man they dubbed "the Bronze Bonze," and found that his suddenly popular temple made for a good story.

"We're giving the people what they want," enthused Matsumoto. "People are coming away from their visit to Seidokakuji convinced that they've gained a valuable insight into their karma. And who are we to say they're wrong?"

"I'd like to see the look on the faces of those complacent cretins at Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji now that we're the big noise in town," chortled Yoneda. "All that glitters is not gold — or silver, for that matter."

"Very witty, old friend," Matsumoto replied. "But instead of standing around cracking jokes and patting ourselves on the back, I think we should empty the collection boxes — they're getting rather full!"

Now that Seidokakuji was flush with funds, Yoneda had been able to repair the bronze plating on the temple's roof. He hired a crew to tidy up the grounds and shore up some of the more decrepit tombstones in the graveyard. And it was now considered the height of refined sophistication to have one's funeral at Seidokakuji. The temple's account books were full of reassuring columns of black ink.

Life is good, thought Yoneda. After all my hard work the past couple of months, I deserve a vacation. Thailand seems a good choice — lovely beaches, I hear, and of course it is a Buddhist country. My knowledge of the Theravada tradition is so lamentably rusty.

And what with Seidokakuji's higher public profile these days, he ruminated on, it really isn't appropriate for me to mingle with the herd and take public transport. People expect the chief priest of a well-known temple to display a certain dignity and . . . gravitas. Perhaps a Lexus sedan would be the right vehicle for someone in my position. Or maybe a Bentley — I wonder if they come in bronze?

First things first, though — it's time I bought a new suit. I'm tired of wearing the same old duds.

The next day, Yoneda went to a local bespoke tailor that Matsumoto had recommended and was fitted for an Italian-style charcoal-gray suit that struck what he thought was just the right note of refined restraint for a cleric whose public profile was steadily increasing. Back at the temple after the alterations, he tried it on and preened himself in front of the mirror in his bedroom.


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